8th September is International Literacy Day. Millions of people worldwide still can’t read and write. We must do much better.
Growing up in India, my earliest memory is of my grandmother learning to chalk her name in the night school that convened under the solitary light bulb in the village. When I enrolled at primary school, her studies progressed through my homework; indeed, we competed over it.
Soon, there was no holding her back as she went on to analyse the manifestos of rival candidates and organised her friends to vote at election time. It had all started because my grandfather did not want the ignominy of registering her as illiterate when the census-takers came around. When the time came to claim her widow’s pension, she signed instead of thumbprinting the paperwork so that officialdom could not cheat her of her rights.
Literacy transformed Grandma’s life. Also that of her community, her family, and most of all, mine. She insisted on pawning her gold dowry to buy my air ticket when I won a scholarship to high school in England.
Literacy—alongside numeracy—is as vital as our bread, water, and the air we breathe. It is a bedrock of social inter-relationships and fundamental to solving problems and handling differences. Not because we can read, write and count, but because without these basic skills, we cannot fully understand each other and advance together peacefully.
To write her name was the simple test of literacy in Grandma’s time, some 60 years ago. Today, the literacy standard set by the United Nations is barely higher: a self-declaration that you can read, write, and understand a short, simple statement about everyday life. But even by this minimal benchmark, 14 percent of people older than 15 years are still illiterate. That equates to a billion people globally. Two hundred years of rapid progress with literacy has slowed down to barely keep pace with population growth.
Who are the illiterate today? According to UNESCO, 771 million youth and adults cannot read and write, with a significant north-south divide. Europe and North America enjoy literacy rates of 97-99 percent, Southern America around 95 percent, and East Asia around 90 percent. South and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa hover around 80 percent, while the Middle East and North Africa remain at a dismal 70-75 percent.
Aggregate statistics hide serious disparities that leave behind hundreds of millions of people. Most are older cohorts who never benefited from the universal schooling movement. Two-thirds of illiterate people are women. Even more shocking is that as the old make way for a younger literate generation, 250 million children are still failing to acquire basic literacy skills.
Ever since writing and reading emerged in ancient Sumer around 3500 BCE, political, cultural, and economic factors have driven literacy. It took post-World War II social policy to really break the millennia-long link between poverty, class, and illiteracy. But not everywhere. Chad is the least literate nation at only 22 percent, followed by Guinea, South Sudan, Niger, Mali, and the Central African Republic struggling between 30-40 percent. Afghan literacy was 43 percent in 2018. Among the least literate nations, gender disparities are at their most stark, with females lagging twenty or more points behind male peers.
Conflict- and crisis-affected populations regress in the literacy stakes. For 100 million refugees and displaced, some repeatedly, developing and maintaining literacy is an uphill struggle.
Investment in learning signifies the belief of a community in its future. That is why, in the 1994 genocide against Tutsis that I witnessed firsthand, the destruction of schools and universities was intrinsic to the evil perpetrated there. The same was true in the 1970s Cambodian genocide.
Similar perverse thinking is evident in the attacks on learning spaces in many recent conflicts. That is because today’s wars are fought in mind as much as on the battlefield, and nothing demoralises an opponent more than to mess with their foundational self-beliefs. An egregious example is Ethiopia’s bitter civil war in Tigray, where the destruction of schools and colleges is construed as an assault on local identity.
Conversely, continuing to learn—come what may—signifies defiance. In a previous cycle of Ethiopian conflict, schools were tucked into caves in remote mountains. In Sierra Leone, bush schools were artfully disguised against marauders. In Rwanda, we established roadside “schools in boxes” to signal the will of fleeing genocide survivors to re-emerge. In Afghanistan, a mushrooming network of secret girls’ schools shows extraordinary courage and creativity in defence of the human right to read, write and learn.
Our learning systems are also vulnerable to other types of crises. The world got a sense of this during the Covid pandemic, with closures impacting 1.6 billion learners in 190 countries. An estimated 24 million never returned to formal education. This cohort is likely to suffer lifelong losses estimated at US$ 366-US$ 1,776 annually over their working lives.
That experience previews future learning losses as climate change intensifies and frequent disasters devastate educational infrastructure. This is routine for inundation-prone Bangladesh and now also Pakistan. The climate-induced drought in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa has brought unprecedented hunger and malnutrition. Starving children can’t learn properly, and subsequent remedial teaching cannot make up fully for young brains that failed to develop their full potential. Hence, the importance of child and school feeding in humanitarian programming.
While basic literacy progress slows or reverses in places facing serious shocks, the rest are moving on to acquire greater functional literacy. This is defined as the ability to combine basic literacy with other essential skills to engage more effectively in society. By and large, this means harnessing science and communication technologies, as illustrated by the growth of remote learning during pandemic times.
Learning to read and write was enough for Grandma, as all she wanted was to battle with the politicians and bureaucrats who outraged her. Today, she would not be able to function without the knowhow to digitally operate her bank account, pay her taxes, book a train for her annual pilgrimage, video consult her doctor, volunteer with her local Red Cross branch, order goods online, Facebook her grandchildren, navigate YouTube for her favourite Bollywood clips, and much more. Her basic literacy would have limited functionality without adequate computer training and internet access.
That is the main problem today. Three billion people – a third of the world, mostly in Africa and Asia – remain unconnected. And for many who are connected, low internet speeds and high data costs mean that they are forced into functional illiteracy because they cannot use their skills. The good news is that the digital divide is steadily narrowing.
More troubling is the abysmal quality of global education. Too many classrooms around the world lack essential learning aids – let alone computers. The Ghanian teacher obliged to use a chalkboard to teach computing in a school without computers struck a poignant chord. Some schools don’t have benches to sit on or safe toilets. The latter is a particular problem for girls who have the additional challenge of handling the social embarrassment of menstruation. A tenth of girls in sub-Saharan Africa regularly or completely miss school as a consequence.
The world is wildly off course from its 2030 education targets under the Sustainable Development Goals. Even in the United States, although 96 percent of Americans are theoretically literate, at least one in seven are functionally illiterate, and many more operate at low proficiency. Similarly, 80 million Europeans are thought to be functionally illiterate.
Functional literacy enables lifelong learning, which is the essential bridge between multiplying world problems and finding solutions. However, with a staggering two billion people worldwide functionally illiterate – in addition to the billion who cannot read and write—we are excluding a third of humanity from contributing effectively.
International Literacy Day is an opportunity to rethink the fundamental premises for universal learning. This is the most powerful way to better the world.
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